Development of agriculture and writing | Cosmology & Astronomy | Khan Academy

Development of agriculture and writing | Cosmology & Astronomy | Khan Academy


In this video, I’m going to
use words like eras, periods, and ages to refer to
segments of time in the human or in the pre-human past. And what I want to clarify
right from the get-go– because frankly,
this is something that’s confused me in the past–
is that archaeologists will refer to eras, periods,
and ages in the human past and they’re usually referring
to periods of tens of thousands of years, or thousands of years. But these are different eras,
periods, and ages than the ones that geologists would
refer to when they’re talking about geological time. In geological time, era means
several hundred millions of years. Periods and ages mean
millions of years. When an archaeologist,
when we’re studying the human past,
this is just talking– they’re just generally
talking about long segments of human time, but not
in the millions of years, usually in the thousands or
the ten thousands of years. So what I want to do
with that out of the way is talk about what has happened
in the distant human past, or the distant
pre-human past, and also touch on some of
the classifications for these segments of time–
because they actually tell us what were the interesting
developments that happened to humanity over
the 200,000 years that Homo sapiens have
been on this planet, or that we believe
that Homo sapiens have been on this planet. So the longest period
of time in human past, or the category of
human time– and there are different ways
you can categorize it– is the Paleolithic
Era right over here. And what really makes
that period of time– so this begins even in
prehistory or pre-human history, so before
Homo sapiens even existed– you have the
beginning of the Paleolithic Era that really began with the
development of stone tools. And as we learned in the
video on human evolution, there were pre Homo
sapiens species that were using stone tools. And so the Paleolithic
Era, it’s really kind of signified by one, the
stone tools, but even more– that either the
pre-humans– or once you go about 200,000 years
ago– the humans show up. It’s kind of
distinguished by humans being hunter-gatherers, which
essentially means to survive, we used to walk around a lot. If we couldn’t see something
obvious to hunt, maybe a woolly mammoth or something,
if we didn’t see something obvious to hunt, we
would look around for snails, or mushrooms,
or whatever else. And that’s how we would survive. That’s how we would live. And because we were constantly
adapting to our environment based on the seasons, we
were maybe following animals as they migrated,
hunter-gatherers were fundamentally nomadic,
which means that they never settled in one place
for a long time. They were always ready to pick
up– probably their tents– and follow the herd, or follow
whatever animals they were hunting, or follow
the season, so they could go to warmer
climates, maybe, where they’re more likely to
find something on the ground to eat, maybe,
during the winter. Or who knows. So the Paleolithic Era is
really distinguished by that. It’s a huge swath of
time in human history. And it doesn’t come
to an end until you get to the advent of farming. So the Paleolithic Era,
I mean, we’re literally talking about over
two million years ago was when it starts–
before Homo sapiens even existed as a species. And it goes all the way
to the advent of farming, that we believe first
came about around 11,000 to 7,000 years ago. And this abbreviation
right here, this BP, this does not stand
for British Petroleum. It stands for Before Present,
or before the present time. So one more acronym
to have in your tool kit when you see things. And obviously, if we’re 11,000
years before the present, that’s the same thing as
9,000 years Before Christ, or Before the Common Era. Because Christ was, we
believe, born 2,000 years ago. Now, it may or may
not be obvious to you, but the advent of agriculture
is a super big deal, arguably the biggest deal
in the development of human civilization, or
in all of human history. And you might say,
hey, you know, what’s the big deal
about agriculture? These characters over
here look pretty happy. They’re able to
walk around a lot. They’re able to hunt. What’s the big deal of
all of a sudden people plowing fields, and
domesticating cattle, and having chickens to lay
eggs, and whatever else? And the big deal about that–
besides the fact that it would change people’s diet– is
that for the first time, it allowed them
to not be nomadic. It allowed them to– and
you could have probably had some hunters who were
somewhat settled, maybe living near the ocean. Maybe they did some
fishing, and all the rest. But for the most part, with
the development of agriculture, it forced people to
stay in one place. So you have the Paleolithic
Era all the way to the advent of agriculture, which was about
11,000 to 7,000 years ago. And besides the fact that
it changed people’s diet, it allowed them to settle. So agriculture
allowed human beings to settle down in one area. And it wasn’t just that they
were settling in one area, but because they were able to
control their environment, they were able to increase
the density of things, of crops that humans
could consume, and animals that humans
could consume– and lower the density of crops that
humans can’t consume, and animals that
they can’t consume, or that they don’t want around,
like pests of some type. What it allowed
them to do is also settle in more
dense environments. You can imagine when you just
have people walking around, you need a lot of
land to support even the calorie requirements
of one human being. But all of a sudden, if you are
able to develop agriculture, you’re able to
domesticate animals. All of a sudden you could have–
in the same amount of land, you could have more
calories being generated. And because you have more
calories being generated in a smaller amount of
land, people can settle. And they can settle in
a denser environment. And so agriculture was really
this necessary requirement for people to
develop civilization, or to develop
villages and cities. And maybe also giving
them the free time to start thinking
about hey, maybe we want to think about how we
can record what we know, how we can develop
even more technologies. And so just to give us a
sense of the categorization that an archaeologist would
use for these different periods of time– I told you we
start with the Paleolithic Era, with the advent
of stone tools, pre-humans– most of
human time on this planet. And then about 11,000 years ago,
the development of agriculture. And it developed independently
at different places around the world,
which is by itself an interesting phenomenon. And people think that it might
just be that be the climate might have warmed
up a little bit, so that people–
maybe naturally there were some human
edible crops that existed in a little bit
of a denser environment, and humans learned to
optimize that slowly, and they did that independently. But it’s an interesting
question of why did it develop just then
after 180,000, 190,000 years, why did agriculture
all of a sudden happen? But just to get
the terminology– the Paleolithic Era is that
period before agriculture. And then once agriculture
starts developing, we are now in the Neolithic Era. And some archaeologists will
describe a transition period between the Paleolithic
and the Neolithic Era called the Mesolithic. And just so you know what
these words mean– because they actually make sense when
you know what they mean, paleo means old and lithic
means stone, or of stone. So they’re really talking
about the Old Stone Age. Neolithic, as you could
imagine, means new stone. So it’s kind of
the New Stone Age. And meso means middle. So it is the Middle Stone Age. So another way of thinking
about this whole period from when people
were hunter-gatherers all the way to about
11,000 to 7,000 years ago when they developed
agriculture– this whole period is called the Stone Age. And the Stone Age
is this biggest age. And there’s just different
ways of describing it, because if you just
call it the Stone Age you’re really making importance
out of the actual tools that people could shape. They weren’t able to
use metal at this point. When you refer to
Paleolithic and Neolithic, you’re maybe referring
a little bit more– and there’s other ways
to think about it– but you’re referring
a little bit more to the lifestyles of
the human beings– Paleolithic being
hunter-gatherers, Neolithic having actually
settled, having actually started to develop primitive
villages, and even cities. And then of course
Mesolithic is in between. And just for a pop
culture reference, you might have heard
of the Paleolithic diet that some people
are going on now. And those are people who try
to live like hunter-gatherers. Their belief is that
most of human evolution occurred while we
were hunter-gatherers, and so that’s what our bodies
are most accustomed to. So they like to eat meat. And they like to
eat a lot of nuts. And I even met, I
had a coworker once who used to only eat raw meat. And I don’t know if
that is even justified, or that’s even somehow validated
by the archaeological record. These people probably
did cook their meat. Now, at the end
of the Stone Age, we would have, I would say,
the number two most significant development in human history. And now we’re talking
about 3,000 BC, which is about 5,000 years ago. And this is the
development of writing. So we were hunter-gatherers
about 9,000 to 10,000, 11,000 years ago. People started
developing agriculture. It allows them to settle
in more dense environments. It also gives them a
little bit more free time, because they don’t have to
hunt and gather all the time. And then you go and once again,
we’ll probably discover things as we go forward in time
that maybe these dates need to be pushed back,
or whatever else, or we discover new
civilizations, or who knows. But our best sense is
you have these villages. You have these
civilizations developing. And by about 5,000 years
ago– so this would be 5,000 before the present, or 3,000
BC– Before Christ– you have people saying,
hey, why don’t we start trying to write down what
we know so that when I tell someone orally, it doesn’t
actually lose information there? And then so our
descendants can slowly collect all of the
knowledge we have, and maybe accelerate– I don’t
know if they did it explicitly thinking of these, but let’s
just write down what we know. And so at about
that period of time, you have– as far as we can
tell– the first development of a pictogram-based
system of writing. And the earliest system
of writing we know is cuneiform, which is from the
Sumerian civilization, which is now in present-day Iraq. And what’s the really
big deal about this is that this is, on some
level, the beginning of recorded history. We could talk about
the word history. You could say that history
is all of the past, and we could use the
archaeological record to figure out
stuff before people started to write things down. But when they started
to write things down, now it was recorded. Now we’re actually
getting actual accounts of what people know, of
actual people’s knowledge. And the reason why this is a
big deal– I mean agriculture, hopefully you now appreciate
that it was a pretty big deal– but the reason why
writing was a big deal, is that now civilization
could collect its knowledge. And it could build upon it
generation after generation, without having to worry
about people forgetting it, or information getting
distorted verbally from ancestor to descendant. And with that, you also have
the beginning of the Bronze Age. And the Bronze Age
is kind of known for this beginning of–
even though it’s referring to a material, which
comes from the first time that people started
using bronze as a tool, or using bronze for their
tools, and for their weapons– and bronze, it’s a
mixture of mostly copper and a little bit of tin. But the Bronze Age–
at least in my mind– the biggest deal of what started
at the beginning of the Bronze Age really, really
was the writing. So once again, just as a
review, because I actually, I find this kind of confusing–
our current understanding, most of human prehistory,
and even pre-human prehistory were spent as hunter-gatherers
using stone tools, until about 11,000 years ago. And then we became a
little bit more settled. We became farmers essentially,
using stone tools. And then you fast forward
another about 5,000, 6,000 years. And then we started
to become farmers who started to write down
the things that we knew. And we started to
use bronze tools.

37 thoughts on “Development of agriculture and writing | Cosmology & Astronomy | Khan Academy

  • I was looking at the title of this video in a confused way, thinking I've been spelling agriculture wrong all these years.

  • Kind of all makes you stop and think. It would be illogical to assume that homo sapiens is the final rung of the evolutionary ladder. Unless we manage to totally obliterate all life on the planet, there will likely emerge a new, smarter, more adaptive humanoid who will be amused at our limited capacities and barbaric ways.

  • A wonderful book on the development and the reason of differences in development of civilizations is Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies"

  • Hmm, I learned in my Anthropology 101 class that the first sedentary people (in the Middle East, at least) were not food producers (ex. farmers), but gatherers – Kottack's 13th edition Anthropology textbook says "Even today, wild wheats grows so densely in the Hilly Flanks that one person working just an hour with Neolithic tools can easily harvest a kilogram of wheat (Harlan and Zohary 1966). People would have had no reason to invent cultivation when wild grain was ample to feed them."

  • (Cont'd from my previous post) "…But after harvesting all that wheat, they'd need a place to put it. They could no longer maintain a nomadic lifestyle, since they'd need to stay close to their wheat." Also, on why agriculture developed (in the Middle East), the Kottack textbook says that "Early cultivation began as an attempt to copy, in a less favorable environment, the dense stands of wheat and barley that grew wild in the Hilly Flanks" (cont'd)

  • . . . So the Kottack textbook, at least, says that agriculture didn't develop (in the Middle East) because someone suddenly got smart and figured that agriculture would lead to "civilization", rather because food gathering was no longer sufficient in the new land that these people were living in so the people had to get creative and do something different. My professor says that while agriculture had its benefits, it opened a whole can of worms that created a lot of problems, too, ha ha.

  • (Cont'd from previous post) I think my professor talked about how the "dense" population lead to more disease, and how now these farmers had to work for life, and people organizing the farmers became richer so social and gender inequality was born, though I might not be remembering my lectures correctly.

  • Thanks kahn. You reminded me about how much we don't know of our past. 11000 years. And we still heat water to get power

  • @Acerola211 All that wheat could be there in part because of the agricultural efforts of ancient peoples.

  • @BitterBurst It's totally fine to eat any meat of fish raw, as long as it hasn't gone rancid, with the exception of chicken. Maybe a couple other exceptions too, but I eat my meat mostly raw and I'm healthy as a horse ๐Ÿ™‚

  • @BitterBurst Blue-rare steak is delicious, and when I was really into weight training I used to shoot raw eggs, but that tasted disgusting. That said, it can be pretty hard to beat a charbroiled burger with the right seasoning.

  • @Emanresu56 The textbook says, "Natufian settlements [the people who've settled due to abundant wild grains rather than because they started farming] . . . show permanent architectural features and evidence for the processing and storage of wild grains. One such site is Abu Hureyra, Syria, which was initially occupied by Natufian foragers around 11,000 to 10,500 B.P." It sounds to me that these archaeologists didn't find farming tools but permanent settlements based on wild grains in that area.

  • @christerryatl Well, I think we can all agree that agriculture made humanity the way it is today. There's definitely a lot of positive outcomes, but I do agree that there are some negative outcomes, as well. I think it's good to be grounded in reality.

  • This is a great video, but I think Khan left out (whether purposely or accidentally) a huge reason why agriculture was important. Settling down with a steady supply of food meant that we no longer had to base our lives around finding food, instead now we had more free time, which allowed us to develop special skills.

  • Noobs response. Being a hunter gatherer gives you more spare time than toiling in a field all day. Writing and scientific advancement was made by the higher classes who were free of work.

  • I don't think so, natural selection occurs because species adapt to the environment to survive. Seeing as how we have colonized the planet we have nothing to adapt to. I think if anything the next step in human evolution will be integration of technology in the human body.

  • Never posted on Khan Academy before but if you plot human saccharomyces cerevisiae on with human expansion you will see they correlate and the reason for that is that brewing microbes from water, so alcohol is one of our important discoveries. Still though no doubt Agriculture is the most important aspect of human history and future.

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